Far before the terms Native American or Indian were created, the tribes were spread all over the Americas. Before any white man set foot on this territory, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For thousands of years, the American Indian developed its customs and legacy without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern parts of what’s now the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a tale of beautiful art and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly elaborate buildings and public works.
While there was inevitable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the narrative of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely connected to nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in our direction, the objective was to discover new resources – however the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from wood to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the motivation to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, because the Europeans who landed here knew that their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They required more space. And so began the process of forcing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties that were nearly uniformly ignored after the Indians were forced away from the territory in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were motivated by the desire to expand westward into territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly all Native American tribes, roughly 360,000 in number, were living to the west of the Mississippi River. These American Indians, some from the Northwestern and Southeastern territories, were confined to Indian Territory located in present day Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups experienced misfortune as the continuous flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these diverse groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century in the United States was marked by its steady expansion to the Mississippi River. However, due to the Gadsden purchase, that lead to U.S. control of the borderlands of southern New Mexico and Arizona in addition to the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States practically doubled the amount of acreage under its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves of European and Asian immigrants who wished to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented captivating possibilities for those ready to make the long trip westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers set about establishing their homesteads in the Great Plains and other parts of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and operations developed and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States first became a sovereign country, it adopted the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but over the course of two centuries the U.S. designed its own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American oversight.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new agency inside the War Department called the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which worked closely with the U.S. Army to enforce their policies. At times the federal government recognized the Indians as self-governing, independent political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady flow of settlers into Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized reports of cruel native tribes committing widespread massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was far from the norm; in fact, Native American tribes frequently helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians offer wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they served as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still feared the risk of an attack.
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To quiet these worries, in 1851 the U.S. government kept a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe accepted a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roads and forts in this territory and pledged not to ever attack settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total payments to the Indians. The Native American tribes responded peacefully to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who entered into the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities amidst their tribes to be able to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful accord between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t hold very long. After hearing testimonies of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of limiting Native Americans to reservations, modest swaths of acreage within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for their use, in order to provide more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government compelled Native Americans to surrender their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include money in addition to foodstuffs, animals, household goods and agricultural tools. These reservations were established in an effort to clear the way for increasing U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans divided from the whites in order to decrease the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many problems. Most of all many of the native peoples did not entirely understand the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government departments accountable for applying these policies were overwhelmed with awful management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never executed.
The U.S. government rarely honored their side of the accords even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more land in the West, the federal government constantly decreased the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were unhappy with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ endless appetite for territory.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they fought to preserve their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these skirmishes with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need of a change.
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Native American policy changed considerably after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of pushing Native Americans inside reservations was far too harsh even while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, considered assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only permanent strategy for guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the government enacted a pivotal law stating that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as independent entities.
This legislation signaled a major change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress presumed that it would be easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government administrators considered assimilation as the most practical remedy for what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the single lasting method of insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pushed Native Americans to move out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden homes and become farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that pressed Native Americans to quit their established appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others ordered Indian men to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized tribunals to impose federal polices that often prohibited traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To accelerate the assimilation course, the government set up Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian children. According to the director of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to make this happen objective, the schools compelled students to speak only English, dress in proper American clothing and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies helped bring Native Americans nearer to the conclusion of their original tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress handed down the General Allotment Act, the most significant part of the U.S. government’s assimilation program, which was created to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress wanted to increase private title of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots of land, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, often called the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the territory was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would break up Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while cutting down the expense of Indian administration and serving up prime land to be sold to white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they lived under policies that outlawed their traditional lifestyle but didn’t supply the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Within three decades, the people had lost over two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Commonly, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order to pay bills and provide for their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were generally not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, like the makers of the Act had desired. Aside from that it produced resentment among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural center of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Through U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their places of residence because their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over all these years the Indians had been defrauded out of their territory, food and way of life, as the federal government’s Indian policies coerced them inside reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t make it through relocation, assimilation and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to less than 250,000 persons. As a result of generations of discriminatory and corrupt policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed permanently.
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